“We don’t want it,” Citra told him, feeling pretty sure she could speak for her parents on the matter. “We’ll never use it again.”
“But you must use it,” he insisted, “so that it might remind you.”
“Remind us of what?”
“That a scythe is merely the instrument of death, but it is your hand that swings me. You and your parents, and everyone else in this world are the wielders of scythes.” Then he gently put the knife in her hands. “We are all accomplices. You must share the responsibility.”
That may have been true, but after he was gone Citra still dropped the knife into the trash.
* * *
It is the most difficult thing a person can be asked to do. And knowing that it is for the greater good doesn’t make it any easier. People used to die naturally. Old age used to be a terminal affliction, not a temporary state. There were invisible killers called “diseases” that broke the body down. Aging couldn’t be reversed, and there were accidents from which there was no return. Planes fell from the sky. Cars actually crashed. There was pain, misery, despair. It’s hard for most of us to imagine a world so unsafe, with dangers lurking in every unseen, unplanned corner. All of that is behind us now, and yet a simple truth remains: People have to die.
It’s not as if we can go somewhere else; the disasters on the moon and Mars colonies proved that. We have one very limited world, and although death has been defeated as completely as polio, people still must die. The ending of human life used to be in the hands of nature. But we stole it. Now we have a monopoly on death. We are its sole distributor.
I understand why there are scythes, and how important and how necessary the work is . . . but I often wonder why I had to be chosen. And if there is some eternal world after this one, what fate awaits a taker of lives?
—From the gleaning journal of H.S. Curie
* * *
Tyger Salazar had hurled himself out a thirty-nine-story window, leaving a terrible mess on the marble plaza below. His own parents were so annoyed by it, they didn’t come to see him. But Rowan did. Rowan Damisch was just that kind of friend.
He sat by Tyger’s bedside in the revival center, waiting for him to awake from speedhealing. Rowan didn’t mind. The revival center was quiet. Peaceful. It was a nice break from the turmoil of his home, which lately had been filled with more relatives than any human being should be expected to endure. Cousins, second cousins, siblings, half-siblings. And now his grandmother had returned home after turning the corner for a third time, with a new husband and a baby on the way.
“You’re going to have a new aunt, Rowan,” she had announced. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
The whole thing pissed Rowan’s mother off—because this time Grandma had reset all the way down to twenty-five, making her ten years younger than her daughter. Now Mom felt pressured to turn the corner herself, if only to keep up with Grandma. Grandpa was much more sensible. He was off in EuroScandia, charming the ladies and maintaining his age at a respectable thirty-eight.
Rowan, at sixteen, had resolved he would experience gray hair before he turned his first corner—and even then, he wouldn’t reset so far down as to be embarrassing. Some people reset to twenty-one, which was the youngest genetic therapy could take a person. Rumor was, though, that they were working on ways to reset right down into the teens—which Rowan found ridiculous. Why would anyone in their right mind want to be a teenager more than once?
When he glanced back at his friend, Tyger’s eyes were open and studying Rowan.
“Hey,” Rowan said.
“How long?” Tyger asked.
Tyger pumped his fist in triumph. “Yes! A new record!” He looked at his hands, as if taking stock of the damage. There was, of course, no damage left. One did not wake up from speedhealing until there was nothing left to heal. “Do you think it was jumping from such a high floor that did it, or was it the marble plaza?”
“Probably the marble,” Rowan said. “Once you reach terminal velocity, it doesn’t matter how high you are when you jump.”
“Did I crack it? Did they have to replace the marble?”
“I don’t know, Tyger—jeez, enough already.”
Tyger leaned back into his pillow, immensely pleased with himself. “Best splat ever!”
Rowan found he had patience to wait for his friend to wake up, but no patience for him now that he was conscious. “Why do you even do it? I mean, it’s such a waste of time.”
That made Rowan chuckle. It was Rowan who had coined the term “lettuce-kid” to describe them. Both of them were born sandwiched somewhere in the middle of large families, and were far from being their parents’ favorites. “I got a couple of brothers that are the meat, a few sisters that are cheese and tomatoes, so I guess I’m the lettuce.” The idea caught on, and Rowan had started a club called the Iceberg Heads at school, which now bragged almost two dozen members . . . although Tyger often teased that he was going to go rogue and start a romaine revolt.
Tyger had started splatting a few months ago. Rowan tried it once, and found it a monumental pain. He ended up behind on all his schoolwork, and his parents levied all forms of punishment—which they promptly forgot to enforce—one of the perks of being the lettuce. Still, the thrill of the drop wasn’t worth the cost. Tyger, on the other hand, had become a splatting junkie.
“You gotta find a new hobby, man,” Rowan told him. “I know the first revival is free, but the rest must be costing your parents a fortune.”
“Yeah . . . and for once they have to spend their money on me.”
“Wouldn’t you rather they buy you a car?”
“Revival is compulsory,” Tyger said. “A car is optional. If they’re not forced to spend it, they won’t.”
Rowan couldn’t argue with that. He didn’t have a car either, and doubted his parents would ever get him one. The publicars were clean, efficient, and drove themselves, his parents had argued. What would be the point in spending good money on something he didn’t need? Meanwhile, they threw money in every direction but his.
“We’re roughage,” Tyger said. “If we don’t cause a little intestinal distress, no one knows we’re there.”
• • •
The following morning, Rowan came face to face with a scythe. It wasn’t unheard of to see a scythe in his neighborhood. You couldn’t help but run into one once in a while—but they didn’t often show up in a high school.
The encounter was Rowan’s fault. Punctuality was not his strong point—especially now that he was expected to escort his younger siblings and half-siblings to their school before hopping into a publicar and hurrying to his. He had just arrived and was heading to the attendance window when the scythe came around a corner, his spotless ivory robe flaring behind him.
Once, when hiking with his family, Rowan had gone off on his own and had encountered a mountain lion. The tight feeling in his chest now, as well as the weak feeling in his loins, had been exactly the same. Fight or flight, his biology said. But Rowan had done neither. Back then, he had fought those instincts and calmly raised his arms, as he had read to do, making himself look larger. It had worked, and the animal bounded away, saving him a trip to the local revival center.
Now, at the sudden prospect of a scythe before him, Rowan had an odd urge to do the same—as if raising his hands above his head could frighten the scythe away. The thought made him involuntarily laugh out loud. The last thing you want to do is laugh at a scythe.
“Could you direct me to the main office?” the man asked.
Rowan considered giving him directions and heading the opposite way, but decided that was too cowardly. “I’m going there,” Rowan said. “I’ll take you.” The man would appreciate helpfulness—and getting on the good side of a scythe couldn’t hurt.
Rowan led the way, passing other kids in the hall—students who, like him, were late, or were just on an errand. They all gawked and tried to disappear into the wall as he and the scythe passed. Somehow, walking through the hall with a scythe became less frightening when there were others to bear the fear instead—and Rowan couldn’t deny that it was a bit heady to be cast as a scythe’s trailblazer, riding in the cone of such respect. It wasn’t until they reached the office that the truth hit home. The scythe was going to glean one of Rowan’s classmates today.
Everyone in the office stood the moment they saw the scythe, and he wasted no time. “Please have Kohl Whitlock called to the office immediately.”
“Kohl Whitlock?” said the secretary.
The scythe didn’t repeat himself, because he knew she had heard—she just wasn’t willing to believe.
“Yes, Your Honor, I’ll do it right away.”
Rowan knew Kohl. Hell, everyone knew Kohl Whitlock. Just a junior, he had already risen to be the school’s quarterback. He was going to take them all the way to a league championship for the first time in forever.
The secretary’s voice shook powerfully when she made the call into the intercom. She coughed as she said his name, choking up.
And the scythe patiently awaited Kohl’s arrival.
The last thing Rowan wanted to do was antagonize a scythe. He should have just slunk off to the attendance window, gotten his readmit, and gone to class. But as with the mountain lion, he just had to stand his ground. It was a moment that would change his life.
“You’re gleaning our star quarterback—I hope you know that.”
The scythe’s demeanor, so cordial a moment before, took a turn toward tombstone. “I can’t see how it’s any of your business.”
“You’re in my school,” Rowan said. “I guess that makes it my business.” Then self-preservation kicked in, and he strode to the attendance window, just out of the scythe’s line of sight. He handed in his forged tardy note, all the while muttering Stupid stupid stupid under his breath. He was lucky he wasn’t born in a time when death was natural, because he’d probably never survive to adulthood.
As he turned to leave the office, he saw a bleak-eyed Kohl Whitlock being led into the principal’s office by the scythe. The principal voluntarily ejected himself from his own office, then looked to the staff for an explanation, but only received the teary-eyed shaking of their heads.
No one seemed to notice Rowan still lingering there. Who cared about the lettuce when the beef was being devoured?
He slipped past the principal, who saw him just in time to put a hand on his shoulder. “Son, you don’t want to go in there.”
He was right, Rowan didn’t want to go in there. But he went anyway, closing the door behind him.
There were two chairs in front of the principal’s well-organized desk. The scythe sat in one, Kohl in the other, hunched and sobbing. The scythe burned Rowan a glare. The mountain lion, thought Rowan. Only this one actually had the power to end a human life.
“His parents aren’t here,” Rowan said. “He should have someone with him.”
“Are you family?”
“Does it matter?”
Then Kohl raised his head. “Please don’t make Ronald go,” he pleaded.
Kohl’s expression shot to higher horror, as if this error somehow sealed the deal. “I knew that! I did! I really did!” For all his bulk and bravado, Kohl Whitlock was just a scared little kid. Is that what everyone became in the end? Rowan supposed only a scythe could know.
Rather than forcing Rowan to leave, the scythe said, “Grab a chair then. Make yourself comfortable.”
As Rowan went around to pull out the principal’s desk chair, he wondered if the scythe was being ironic, or sarcastic, or if he didn’t even know that making oneself comfortable was impossible in his presence.
“You can’t do this to me,” Kohl begged. “My parents will die! They’ll just die!”
“No they won’t,” the scythe corrected. “They’ll live on.”
“Can you at least give him a few minutes to prepare?” Rowan asked.
“Are you telling me how to do my job?”
“I’m asking you for some mercy!”
The scythe glared at him again, but this time it was somehow different. He wasn’t just delivering intimidation, he was extracting something. Studying something in Rowan. “I’ve done this for many years,” the scythe said. “In my experience, a quick and painless gleaning is the greatest mercy I can show.”
“Then at least give him a reason! Tell him why it has to be him!”
“It’s random, Rowan!” Kohl said. “Everyone knows that! It’s just freaking random!”
But there was something in the scythe’s eyes that said otherwise. So Rowan pressed.
“There’s more to it, isn’t there?”
The scythe sighed. He didn’t have to say anything—he was, after all, a scythe, above the law in every way. He owed no one an explanation. But he chose to give one anyway.
“Removing old age from the equation, statistics from the Age of Mortality cite 7 percent of deaths as being automobile-related. Of those, 31 percent involved the use of alcohol, and of those, 14 percent were teenagers.” Then he tossed Rowan a small calculator from the principal’s desk. “Figure it out yourself.”
Rowan took his time crunching the numbers, knowing that every second taken was a second of life he bought for Kohl.
“.303%.” Rowan finally said.
“Which means,” said the scythe, “that about three out of every thousand souls I glean will fit that profile. One out every three hundred thirty-three. Your friend here just got a new car and has a record of drinking to excess. So, of the teens who fit that profile, I made a random choice.”
Kohl buried his head in his hands, his tears intensifying. “I’m such an IDIOT!” He pressed his palms against his eyes as if trying to push them deep within his head.
“So tell me,” the scythe said calmly to Rowan. “Has the explanation eased his gleaning, or made his suffering worse?”
Rowan shrunk a bit in his chair.
“Enough,” said the scythe. “It’s time.” Then he produced from a pocket in his robe a small paddle that was shaped to fit over his hand. It had a cloth back and a shiny metallic palm. “Kohl, I have chosen for you a shock that will induce cardiac arrest. Death will be quick, painless, and nowhere near as brutal as the car accident you would have suffered in the Age of Mortality.”
Suddenly Kohl thrust his hand out, grabbing Rowan’s and holding it tightly. Rowan allowed it. He wasn’t family; he wasn’t even Kohl’s friend before today—but what was the saying? Death makes the whole world kin. Rowan wondered if a world without death would then make everyone strangers. He squeezed Kohl’s hand tighter—a silent promise that he wouldn’t let go.
“Is there anything you want me to tell people?” Rowan asked.
“A million things,” said Kohl, “but I can’t think of any of ’em.”
Rowan resolved that he would make up Kohl’s last words to share with his loved ones. And they would be fine words. Comforting ones. Rowan would find a way to make sense of the senseless.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to let go of his hand for the procedure,” the scythe said.
“No,” Rowan told him.
“The shock could stop your heart, too,” the scythe warned.
“So what?” said Rowan. “They’ll revive me.” Then he added, “Unless you’ve decided to glean me, too.”
Rowan was aware that he had just dared a scythe to kill him. In spite of the risk, he was glad he had done it.
“Very well.” And without waiting an instant longer, the scythe pressed the paddle to Kohl’s chest.
Rowan’s vision went white, then dark. His entire body convulsed. He flew backwards out of his chair and hit the wall behind him. It might have been painless for Kohl, but not for Rowan. It hurt. It hurt more than an
ything—more pain than a person is supposed to feel—but then the microscopic painkilling nanites in his blood released their numbing opiates. The pain subsided as those opiates took effect, and when his vision cleared, he saw Kohl slumped in his chair and the scythe reaching over to close his sightless eyes. The gleaning was complete. Kohl Whitlock was dead.
The scythe stood and reached out to offer Rowan his hand, but Rowan didn’t take it. He rose from the floor on his own, and although Rowan felt not an ounce of gratitude, he said, “Thank you for letting me stay.”
The scythe regarded him a little too long, then said, “You stood your ground for a boy you barely knew. You comforted him at the moment of his death, bearing the pain of the jolt. You bore witness, even though no one called you to do so.”
Rowan shrugged. “I did what anyone would do.”
“Did anyone else offer?” the scythe put to him. “Your principal? The office staff? Any of the dozen students we passed in the hall?”
“No . . . ,” Rowan had to admit. “But what does it matter what I did? He’s still dead. And you know what they say about good intentions.”
The scythe nodded, and glanced down at his ring, sitting so fat on his finger. “I suppose now you’ll ask me for immunity.”
Rowan shook his head. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“Fair enough.” The scythe turned to go, but hesitated before he opened the door. “Be warned that you will not receive kindness from anyone but me for what you did here today,” he said. “But remember that good intentions pave many roads. Not all of them lead to hell.”
• • •
The slap was just as jarring as the electric shock—even more so because Rowan wasn’t expecting it. It came just before lunch, as he was standing at his locker, and flew in with such force it knocked him back, making the row of lockers resound like a steel drum.
“You were there and you didn’t stop it!” Marah Pavlik’s eyes flared with grief and righteous indignation. She looked ready to reach up his nostrils with her long nails and extract his brain. “You just let him die!”